Dan Sallitt, guest filmmaker at the 26th FICValdivia
“I feel my characters are truly normal, and I like to approach them from a naturalist perspective”
Interview by: Felipe Blanco
With the exception of his first film, Polly Perverse Strikes Again (1986), a full-length that was shot in video with minimal resources, every production by American director Dan Sallitt (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 1955) screened at the 26th FICValdivia. His is an unhurried oeuvre, constructed over longer periods of time, adding up to five features, and a short film -Caterina-, which premiered this year.
Sallitt began his more reflexive approach to cinema as a film critic for publications like The Los Angeles Reader, Slate magazine, The Chicago Reader, and in recent times, for the MUBI streaming platform. In a way, the filmmaking activity that stemmed from that organized cinephilia was also a calculated space between his professional work at a tech company, and the freedom to finance his movies himself.
His first film defined his interest in affective relationships, both within families, and within couples, characterized by a precarious stability, and by characters that suffer from strong emotional dissonances. That initial picture, completely financed by Sallitt, and shot on ¾ video, exposed the precariousness in the relationship between a boy and a girl, and its quick collapse, after his ex-girlfriend gets back in his life. With that same impulse, he later shot Honeymoon (1998) in 16mm, where once again, he gave an account of the tensions in a couple that, almost without knowing each other, get married, and face a honeymoon with their sexual, religious, and communication shortages.
With his next movies, All The Ships at Sea (2004), and The Unspeakable Act (2012), his focus centered on relationships among siblings. The former is an autumnal chronicle about the moral differences between two Catholic sisters that try to reconnect after a long time. The latter, perhaps the most notable in his filmography, delves into the subjective limits of the love a teenage girl feels for her older brother, and the unmanageable sexual attraction that reappears when he starts a relationship. Both confirmed Sallitt as an exceptional director of actors, capable of modulating intense emotional registers, and at the same time, staking the effectiveness of his distanced mise-en-scène on a gesture or a glance.
His last two pictures, Fourteen (2019), and Caterina (2019), are less marginal, produced with more standardized codes, but they never renounce the intimacy of their observations, and a construction of images that pays permanent homage to the great masters in European cinema.
I would like to talk about your work as a film critic, at the beginning of the 80s. How did you get interested in that?
I always loved movies. I started watching films at 17, when I went to see To Have and Have Not, by Howard Hawks, and that catapulted me: I started watching many movies a year. That was my beginning in cinema, and film criticism followed as a natural extension from the act of watching pictures. Afterwards, in the 80s, someone gave me a chance to be a film critic, but I was already thinking, and writing about cinema for a long time.
In those days, there was an important presence, people like J. Hoberman in The Village Voice, and in Film Comment, and Jonathan Rosenbaum at The Chicago Reader. Was there any dialog between you?
A little, but not specifically with them – yes, with Dave Kehr, who was at the same paper I wrote for. He taught me very much. I was young then, and people like him were the ones I knew and admired, but I still think that I moved really slowly in the world of film criticism.
Whose cinema were you most interested in at the time?
I started with Andrew Sarris, and then I discovered André Bazin, and the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma. First, I loved Hawks, and very early on, I came upon Rohmer’s movies. In large measure, my style was informed by his cinema.
What was your opinion regarding American cinema at that time?
In those days, I did not appreciate the films being made in the US during the 80s, but on the contrary, I had great appreciation for classic American cinema. As it happened, in the 80s, people did not value what was done in the 70s at all, but, a decade later, people started liking that cinema again – that progression started taking place.
And, how has your vision changed regarding the cinema of those years?
Today, I do not judge a whole period in cinema. There are always good pictures. I am not really interested in making comparisons between films in the 80s and the 70s. An interesting thing happened since 2000, or perhaps since 1995, when world cinema became more interconnected, and talents from everywhere started to appear. Before that, one would look specifically at what was happening with cinema in France, or in Italy, but since then, I became very excited with this contemporary cinema with a world character. Another interesting thing is, when you are in a specific period, such as the 80s, you don’t see all the good films in that decade, and many fall below the radar. We did not know the work of British film and TV directors, like Alan Clarke, Stephen Frears, and Mike Leigh, filmmakers that meant a lot to us, but whom we discovered much later.
How much of your work as a critic defined your first film, Polly Perverse Strikes Again, in 1986?
No doubt having watched those films I loved was an influence. It is interesting to me to watch that first movie again, because when I made it, my intention was to make a Hollywood movie the way I would have liked Hollywood cinema to be, at that time, a sort of comedy à la Hawks. I think there is something about how to make a movie that does not come from film criticism, but what does come from there is, perhaps, the importance I give to the structure of the film. Sometimes, after reflecting on a specific scene I am writing that I don’t feel came out so well, I prefer leaving it in the picture, to keep the structure I conceived at the beginning intact.
You directed Honeymoon twelve year after your first picture. Did it take longer than you would have hoped for?
During that time, I was changing my profession, and I was becoming a computer technician. This was in 1987, at the same time when I made Polly Perverse Strikes Again. I had begun working for a tech company, which helped me a lot, because I earned more money, and that way, I could finish it. In 1987, I started to make another movie, but the actress I had quit the first day. I was able to shoot eighty seconds of that movie, footage that I edited, and that is all there is of that unfinished piece. So, between 1987, and 1994, I focused on my work at the computer company, until I quit that year, and I focused on writing a script to shoot in New York. Regrettably, that text was too complex, and hard to shoot, so I decided to write a new, tighter one, in 1996. That was the script for Honeymoon.
Honeymoon reminded me several times of Journey to Italy, by Rossellini, basically because of the protagonist’s internal process, which in a way is similar to Ingrid Bergman’s, in that film.
Yes, I was very inspired by Journey to Italy, and also Stromboli. In both cases, there is a change, a mysterious change. In fiction, something is required to justify such a mysterious change, and I think Rossellini knew that better than anyone.
In regards to these references, you have always been explicit about the influence Rohmer has had in your cinema, with many things I notice in a large portion of your work, such as the power of chance, along with a vision of the middle class.
The middle class is my class, and I think I am writing about what I know. In Rohmer’s case, one of the most interesting ideas is that dialog is not just a way of delivering content to the audience; it is the way life takes place, something you can document as if it were happening at that moment. In order to record that dialog, it has to be adjusted to a social class that speaks that way.
How do you elaborate your stories?
It is always the same. I have ideas that many times are not enough to generate a movie, but if something captures or inspires me, I start to take copious notes, until I have enough to make a film. In that sense, I’m a little like Alfred Hitchcock, because he seemed to have a finished product when he planned a movie, and that is similar to what happens to me. I think I’m just as anxious as he was. So, what I do is I place those notes in order, and probably, there are spaces in between, which I try to fill, but I tell myself that, in spite of this, the picture is already finished, and all I’m doing is small details. The same thing happens with the treatment: I fill those small spaces, which is also the same with editing and continuity. I make a storyboard, and when I’m in the set, I act as if the film is already finished. It is not, but I follow that plan.
In fact, Hitchcock grew tired during production, and he told Truffaut he would like to have a machine that would transform the script into a finished picture.
I think the same thing happens to me on the set. Of course the movie is not ready, but Hitchcock used to tell himself it was, to remain calm. I do that as well, for the same reason. Of course, during filming, situations take place, with the actors, and with other things, but I keep telling myself that, to keep calm.
With time, your movies started to be the object of retrospectives, to show at festivals. How have you dealt with that dimension?
Honestly, the popularity of my films began with The Unspeakable Act. Before that, there was not much international attention regarding my work. I don’t have much trouble with the attention from festivals, and in large measure, I enjoy it, plus it doesn’t really change my financial situation. I thought that might bring me problems, but, in all honesty, it is not something I’ve really had to deal with. But, after that picture, I felt the danger of starting to make films to keep that popularity, so I set out to make something that reclaimed the spirit of Honeymoon. The solution was Fourteen, because its story comes from a very deep place, stirring up very old emotions, and so, at that time, I thought it wouldn’t be influenced by that danger.
Which is the most extenuating part of the creative process?
I hate preproduction; it’s the worst. Writing the script is a little hard, but it is ok. But, preproduction is dreadful because everything has to be perfect, everything has to work well; twenty things have to happen at the same time, and I always feel I don’t have enough help. That also has to do with my anxious personality. During filming, it does not bother me, because you have the support of the film crew, you work with the actors, and that prevents you from feeling alone. Nowadays, different from how it used to be, postproduction is an interesting phase, and I work it on my own. I take care of image editing, and sound postproduction. At present, I deal with color correction with the help of my cinematographer, but everything is very close to me.
Do you modify your scripts during filming?
Very little. I try to follow the script, the storyboard, and the editing as I had planned them, but of course, sometimes, the actor can have some difficulty saying some lines of text, and then, we make small changes. To me, the most important creative space, after what takes place on the set, is the editing bay, because when I’m filming, I’m too focused on the final result, and sometimes I may not notice the more subtle, magical moments that are happening. But in the editing bay, I have no distractions, and I am more sensitive to seeing those moments, or the sensibilities in the acting. Sometimes, it happens that the frame I thought was the best really wasn’t, and it is there where I can play with that spontaneity, both mine, and the performers’.
There is something permanent in your films, which I would describe as a daily neurosis, and tenuous pathology present in the relationships between these characters.
That has to do with finding topics that are interesting to me, because I have that need, and inclination to search for those topics that motivate the characters internally. There is always a twist, some turn that generates situations that are strong enough to carry the whole picture. This is why I’m interested in the mystery that lies within people. In All the Ships at Sea, one of the characters is very depressive. In Honeymoon, the protagonist is incapable of controlling her emotions. To me, all that is an opportunity for surprise, for mystery. I accept this vision of people, and I feel they are truly normal, and I like approaching them from a naturalist perspective. It is true that, in different generations, these personalities are seen through different lenses and filters. I believe that, for film theory in the 30s and 40s, people didn’t think of fiction in terms of character psychology. But, I feel very comfortable using psychology to test out material to make movies, and, as people change, so do the conventions regarding fiction.
I find it hard not to see that pathology as a representation of a deeper social unrest.
There is some kind of discordance among the characters, and I accept that as part of their nature. I cannot imagine any social circumstance where they wouldn’t behave that way. I don’t think it is something necessarily specific to my generation, or to my time, but, maybe in the future, when people observe those behaviors, they might say, “yes, that was characteristic of that time.”